Merkel’s Aspiring Successors Stress Common Ground in First Debate

The three candidates competing to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) agreed on Thursday to revive their party’s fortunes by cutting taxes and reducing Germany’s dependence on the United States for defense.

In a strikingly good-humored three-hour debate in the northern city of Luebeck, the first of eight meetings with party grass roots across Germany before a leadership vote on Dec. 7, the rivals barely clashed on broad policy.

While there were different nuances on details, the three agreed to work to improve the integration of migrants, focus more on affordable housing, cut subsidies to poorer eastern states and further Merkel’s digitalization drive.

 

The race for leader of the Christian Democratic Union party has shaped up as a dual between Merkel protege Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, widely seen as the continuity option, and Friedrich Merz, a millionaire who describes himself as “a free-trade man.”

Merkel has said she will remain chancellor atop a ‘grand coalition’ with the CDU’s Bavarian sister party and Social Democrats until the end of her term in 2021.

CDU General Secretary Kramp-Karrenbauer, the front-runner, won applause for saying she would continue the process of renewal, by taking into account the views of the party base.

Former Merkel rival Merz said he aimed to take the CDU back over the 40 percent mark and halve support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), currently polling at around 16 percent. The CDU is at around 26-27 percent in most surveys.

“It is our job to do this,” he said, adding the CDU had to make clear it had not forgotten voters who felt neglected after the influx of some 1.5 million migrants since 2015.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, the third candidate and an arch-critic of Merkel’s migrant policy, said CDU policy had in part led to the rise of the AfD, now represented in all of Germany’s 16 states. “We can also get rid of them,” he said.

All three candidates promised to work with each other after the leadership election and stressed their mutual respect.

“I will not criticize the others, we will only say good things about each other … In the end, the party must be the winner,” said Merz.

An opinion poll for broadcaster ARD conducted on Monday and Tuesday showed Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as mini-Merkel, still favorite among CDU voters with 46 percent support.

The poll, released on Thursday, showed 31 percent of CDU supporters favored Friedrich Merz, returning to politics after 10 years in the private sector. Twelve percent backed Spahn.

Mexico Overturns Law Meant to Regulate Troops in Drug War

Mexico’s highest court on Thursday overturned a contentious new security law aimed at regulating the long-time use of the military against drug cartels, a day after the president-elect’s team said it was impossible to pull troops from the streets.

Nine of 11 Supreme Court justices vetoed the measure, which President Enrique Pena Nieto sent to the court for constitutional review after signing it in December.

The law intended to set out the rules under which armed forces can target organized crime, formalizing former president Felipe Calderon’s deployment of the military to the streets some 12 years ago. An estimated 170,000 people have died in the ensuing conflict and thousands more have gone missing.

Human rights groups warned the law could open the door to abuses by the military, already accused of human rights violations.

The nine judges said Congress does not have the authority to legislate on “domestic security.” They called the law “unconstitutional” and said only the executive branch can dispatch troops.

President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who takes office Dec. 1, has vowed to radically alter Mexico’s strategy to fight violence, including pardoning low-level drug offenders and addressing root causes such as poverty.

Alfonso Durazo, Lopez Obrador’s future security minister, said at a press conference on Wednesday “there is no way” to withdraw armed forces from the fight against organized crime, because they are more trustworthy and capable than the police.

He added that the government would propose forming a National Guard that would take over the army’s role half-way into Lopez Obrador’s six-year term. The body would comprise 50,000 people from the army, navy and federal police.

Senator Mario Delgado, a leader of Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), said the party next week will present an initiative to reform the constitution and allow a future National Guard to patrol the streets.

The opposing National Action Party (PAN) rejected the plan. 

“Lopez Obrador’s proposal completely abandons the civil path and opts for a military proposal,” said party president Marko Cortes.

Tech Firm Pays Refugees to Train AI Algorithms

Companies could help refugees rebuild their lives by paying them to boost artificial intelligence (AI) using their phones and giving them digital skills, a tech nonprofit said Thursday.

REFUNITE has developed an app, LevelApp, which is being piloted in Uganda to allow people who have been uprooted by conflict to earn instant money by “training” algorithms for AI.

Wars, persecution and other violence have uprooted a record 68.5 million people, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

People forced to flee their homes lose their livelihoods and struggle to create a source of income, REFUNITE co-chief executive Chris Mikkelsen told the Trust Conference in London.

“This provides refugees with a foothold in the global gig economy,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s two-day event, which focuses on a host of human rights issues.

$20 a day for AI work

A refugee in Uganda currently earning $1.25 a day doing basic tasks or menial jobs could make up to $20 a day doing simple AI labeling work on their phones, Mikkelsen said.

REFUNITE says the app could be particularly beneficial for women as the work can be done from the home and is more lucrative than traditional sources of income such as crafts.

The cash could enable refugees to buy livestock, educate children and access health care, leaving them less dependant on aid and helping them recover faster, according to Mikkelsen.

The work would also allow them to build digital skills they could take with them when they returned home, REFUNITE says.

“This would give them the ability to rebuild a life … and the dignity of no longer having to rely solely on charity,” Mikkelsen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Teaching the machines

AI is the development of computer systems that can perform tasks that normally require human intelligence.

It is being used in a vast array of products from driverless cars to agricultural robots that can identify and eradicate weeds and computers able to identify cancers.

In order to “teach” machines to mimic human intelligence, people must repeatedly label images and other data until the algorithm can detect patterns without human intervention.

REFUNITE, based in California, is testing the app in Uganda where it has launched a pilot project involving 5,000 refugees, mainly form South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. It hopes to scale up to 25,000 refugees within two years.

Mikkelsen said the initiative was a win-win as it would also benefit companies by slashing costs.

Another tech company, DeepBrain Chain, has committed to paying 200 refugees for a test period of six months, he said.

Facebook CEO Details Company Battle with Hate Speech, Violent Content

Facebook says it is getting better at proactively removing hate speech and changing the incentives that result in the most sensational and provocative content becoming the most popular on the site.

The company has done so, it says, by ramping up its operations so that computers can review and make quick decisions on large amounts of content with thousands of reviewers making more nuanced decisions.

In the future, if a person disagrees with Facebook’s decision, he or she will be able to appeal to an independent review board.

Facebook “shouldn’t be making so many important decisions about free expression and safety on our own,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a call with reporters Thursday.

But as Zuckerberg detailed what the company has accomplished in recent months to crack down on spam, hate speech and violent content, he also acknowledged that Facebook has far to go.

“There are issues you never fix,” he said. “There’s going to be ongoing content issues.”

Company’s actions

In the call, Zuckerberg addressed a recent story in The New York Times that detailed how the company fought back during some of its biggest controversies over the past two years, such as the revelation of how the network was used by Russian operatives in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

The Times story suggested that company executives first dismissed early concerns about foreign operatives, then tried to deflect public attention away from Facebook once the news came out.

Zuckerberg said the firm made mistakes and was slow to understand the enormity of the issues it faced. “But to suggest that we didn’t want to know is simply untrue,” he said.

Zuckerberg also said he didn’t know the firm had hired Definers Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that spread negative information about Facebook competitors as the social networking firm was in the midst of one scandal after another. Facebook severed its relationship with the firm.

“It may be normal in Washington, but it’s not the kind of thing I want Facebook associated with, which is why we won’t be doing it,” Zuckerberg said.

The firm posted a rebuttal to the Times story.

Content removed

Facebook said it is getting better at proactively finding and removing content such as spam, violent posts and hate speech. The company said it removed or took other action on 15.4 million pieces of violent content between June and September of this year, about double what it removed in the prior three months.

But Zuckerberg and other executives said Facebook still has more work to do in places such as Myanmar. In the third quarter, the firm said it proactively identified 63 percent of the hate speech it removed, up from 13 percent in the last quarter of 2017. At least 100 Burmese language experts are reviewing content, the firm said.

One issue that continues to dog Facebook is that some of the most popular content is also the most sensational and provocative. Facebook said it now penalizes what it calls “borderline content” so it gets less distribution and engagement.

“By fixing this incentive problem in our services, we believe it’ll create a virtuous cycle: by reducing sensationalism of all forms, we’ll create a healthier, less-polarized discourse where more people feel safe participating,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post. 

Critics of the company, however, said Zuckerberg hasn’t gone far enough to address the inherent problems of Facebook, which has 2 billion users.

“We have a man-made, for-profit, simultaneous communication space, marketplace and battle space and that it is, as a result, designed not to reward veracity or morality but virality,” said Peter W. Singer, strategist and senior fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, at an event Thursday in Washington, D.C.

VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

Students Fill Streets of Colombia Capital in Education March

Thousands of students have disrupted life in Colombia’s capital with amid nationwide demonstrations called to press demands for President Ivan Duque to increase education spending.

 

By early evening, police in Bogota used tear gas to disperse marchers trying to reach wealthier neighborhoods.

 

The “Pencil March” rallies across Colombia were the latest chapter in more than a half-dozen street protests in recent months demanding that the government boost funding for education.

Student enrollment in the South American nation’s public universities has quadrupled since the early 1990s, while spending has only marginally increased and activists contend quality is deteriorating.

 

The students protests have converged with other demonstrations against proposed tax changes that critics say will be a blow to the middle class by increasing the cost of basic goods.

Climate Change, Steel, Migration Bedevil G20 Communique

Climate change, steel and migration have emerged as sticking points in the final communique that world leaders will issue at the end of the Group of 20 summit in Argentina later this month, an Argentine government official said on Thursday.

Those issues were the “most complicated” areas of discussion, said Argentina’s Pedro Villagra Delgado, the lead organizer, or “sherpa,” for the summit of leaders from key industrialized and developing economies. 

But he told a press briefing he was optimistic these issues would be resolved in time.

The G20 communique is a non-binding agreement on key international policy issues and will be presented at the conclusion of the two-day summit, which begins on Nov. 30.

Climate goals concern United States

Villagra Delgado said the United States was resistant to including language that outlined guidelines for climate goals in the document.

After withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement last year, the United States broke with other G20 member countries who have pledged to end coal usage and take steps to reach the goals outlined in the accord.

Villagra Delgado also said China disagreed with the rest of the G20 countries on steel, but did not provide further details over the specifics of their disagreement.

The United States has skirmished with a number of its trading partners — including China — over steel, imposing a 25 percent duty on imports of steel and a tariff of 10 percent on aluminum.

Other countries objected to including language about immigration in the communique, Villagra Delgado said, but would not elaborate on which countries expressed concern.

WTO reform may be on table

Reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) may also be a topic of discussion at this month’s meeting, Villagra Delgado said, but added that specific issues to be discussed in the G20 sessions were still being worked out.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of the WTO, while China has claimed the 20-year-old organization’s dispute resolution mechanisms are outdated in the current global economy.

Realistic Masks Made in Japan Find Demand from Tech, Car Companies

Super-realistic face masks made by a tiny company in rural Japan are in demand from the domestic tech and entertainment industries and from countries as far away as Saudi Arabia.

The 300,000-yen ($2,650) masks, made of resin and plastic by five employees at REAL-f Co., attempt to accurately duplicate an individual’s face down to fine wrinkles and skin texture.

Company founder Osamu Kitagawa came up with the idea while working at a printing machine manufacturer.

But it took him two years of experimentation before he found a way to use three-dimensional facial data from high-quality photographs to make the masks, and started selling them in 2011.

The company, based in the western prefecture of Shiga, receives about 100 orders every year from entertainment, automobile, technology and security companies, mainly in Japan.

For example, a Japanese car company ordered a mask of a sleeping face to improve its facial recognition technology to detect if a driver had dozed off, Kitagawa said.

“I am proud that my product is helping further development of facial recognition technology,” he added. “I hope that the developers would enhance face identification accuracy using these realistic masks.”

Kitagawa, 60, said he had also received orders from organizations linked to the Saudi government to create masks for the king and princes.

“I was told the masks were for portraits to be displayed in public areas,” he said.

Kitagawa said he works with clients carefully to ensure his products will not be used for illicit purposes and cause security risks, but added he could not rule out such threats.

He said his goal was to create 100 percent realistic masks, and he hoped to use softer materials, such as silicon, in the future.

“I would like these masks to be used for medical purposes, which is possible once they can be made using soft materials,” he said. “And as humanoid robots are being developed, I hope this will help developers to create [more realistic robots] at a low cost.”

Jurors in ‘El Chapo’ Trial Told of Mexico’s Drug Wars, Corruption

A key prosecution witness in the U.S. trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Thursday told jurors that there were “a lot of deaths” as the accused Mexican drug lord and his associates built the Sinaloa Cartel in the 1990s through bloody conflict with rival drug traffickers.

Jesus Zambada told the jury that his brother, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, and Guzman used armies of sicarios, or assassins, to kill their enemies. Zambada, who has pleaded guilty to U.S. criminal charges, was testifying for a second day in Brooklyn federal court under an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors.

Guzman is accused of directing massive shipments of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana to the United States. He faces life in prison if he is convicted of the 17 criminal counts against him.

One of Guzman’s lawyers, Jeffrey Lichtman, told jurors in his opening statement that Ismael Zambada, who remains at large, actually controlled the cartel, and Guzman was a scapegoat framed with the help of corrupt Mexican officials.

Zambada on Thursday told the story of the Sinaloa Cartel’s emergence in the early 1990s. He said Guzman formed an alliance with several other drug lords to take on the powerful Arellano Felix drug trafficking family.

“There are always a lot of deaths,” he said of the cartel’s wars.

Victims included patrons shot at a nightclub in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, where Zambada said Guzman tried, and failed, to kill one of the Arellano Felixes in 1992.

Zambada admitted he took part in several murder plots himself, though he said he never personally killed anyone.

He was wounded in a gunfight with enemy sicarios, and another one of his brothers, who had no involvement in the drug trade, was shot at his doorstep in Cancun, he said.

Dressed in dark blue prison clothing and speaking through an interpreter, Zambada also testified that the Sinaloa Cartel bought off officials at every level of government, including Mexican state governors, national attorneys general and members of the international police organization Interpol, to ensure safe passage for its products.

While in charge of cartel operations in Mexico City, Zambada said, he personally paid about $300,000 in bribes every month.

On one occasion, he said, he paid a $100,000 bribe to a general at the explicit direction of Guzman.

Guzman was an equal partner with Ismael Zambada within the cartel, said Jesus Zambada.

Ex-Macedonia PM Gruevski Seeking Refugee Status in Hungary

Former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski sought asylum at a Hungarian representation outside Macedonia before reaching Hungary earlier this week and submitting his formal application for refugee status, Budapest said on Thursday.

Gruevski, who resigned in 2016 after 10 years in power, fled his Balkan homeland six months after being sentenced to two years in prison on corruption-related charges.

Macedonian police issued an arrest warrant for him after he failed to show up to begin his sentence following a Nov. 9 court ruling against his motion for a reprieve.

Gruevski’s refugee status application could put Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in a tight spot. He supported the fellow nationalist Gruevski in the run-up to Macedonia’s 2017 election and praised his party’s efforts in halting migrants passing through the Balkans northwards towards Western Europe.

A senior Hungarian official declined to say in which country Gruevski had first sought Hungarian asylum or how he later made his way to the Immigration and Asylum Office in Budapest where he submitted documents and secured a hearing.

“According to my knowledge he made a statement regarding threats to his safety … that justified that his hearing should be conducted not in a transit zone but in Budapest,” said Gergely Gulyas, Orban’s cabinet chief.

Speaking to reporters, Gulyas would not say whether the Hungarian government was involved in helping Gruevski get to Budapest or whether he arrived by land or air. He said Hungary played no role in Gruevski’s exit from Macedonia.

Police in Albania, which borders Macedonia, said later on Thursday that Gruevski had crossed Albanian territory into Montenegro to the north on Sunday evening as a passenger in an Hungarian embassy car. It was unclear whether Gruevski then transited Serbia to reach Hungary further north.

Albanian police said Interpol notified them of an arrest warrant for Gruevski only on Tuesday, when the ex-premier announced on his Facebook page that he was in Budapest and seeking asylum.

Gulyas said Budapest had not yet received an official request from Macedonia to extradite Gruevski, adding Hungary would act “in line with the laws” if that happens. He said there was an extradition agreement between the two countries.

Asked if Gruevski was being protected by Hungarian authorities, Gulyas said Budapest had applied “the appropriate security protocol”, and was assured he would not leave the country. Gruevski had not met Orban this week, he added.

On Wednesday, a Fidesz party spokesman said Gruevski was a politician who was being persecuted by Macedonia’s leftist government. Gulyas declined to comment on this.

Ukraine PM Upbeat on IMF Loan Prospects

Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman expects to get new loans from the International Monetary Fund as early as December, once parliament passes a budget of stability that refrains from making pre-election populist moves, he said Thursday.

Securing IMF assistance will also unlock loans from the World Bank and the European Union. Groysman also said Ukraine was in negotiations with Washington for a new loan guarantee for sovereign debt.

Groysman negotiated a new deal with the IMF last month aimed at keeping finances on an even keel during a choppy election period next year. The new loans are contingent on his steering an IMF-compliant budget through parliament.

“This budget is a budget of stability and continuation of reforms,” Groysman said in an interview with Reuters. “This is fully consistent with our IMF program.”

“Yes. We are counting on a tranche in December,” he added, when asked about when IMF loans were expected, though he did not elaborate on the possible size of the loan.

Ukraine’s government approved a draft budget in September but it will typically undergo a slew of amendments before parliament finally approves it. 

Tax proposal dropped

Groysman said a proposal to change how companies are taxed — on withdrawn capital, rather than profits — had been dropped from the budget because of the IMF’s concerns.

He also said he would not bow to opposition parties’ demands to reverse a recent increase in household gas tariffs, a step that his government reluctantly took to qualify for more IMF assistance.

“Populism led to the weakness of Ukraine,” he said. “This should not be allowed.” 

The IMF and Kyiv’s foreign allies came to Ukraine’s rescue after it plunged into turmoil following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for separatist rebels occupying the eastern industrial Donbass region. 

The United States has also sold coal to plug a domestic shortage caused by rebels taking control of mines in the east. U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Ukraine this week. 

In response to a question about whether Ukraine would continue to buy coal from the United States and potentially also liquefied natural gas, Groysman said that “liquefied gas is very interesting for Ukraine. We talked about the whole spectrum of our cooperation in the energy sector.”

As for coal, he added, “we will buy it from our international partners until we cover the domestic deficit.” 

Washington has also previously issued loan guarantees for Ukrainian debt. Groysman said another such guarantee was “under discussion.”